IBL Symposium Honors Founder

A tribute to Juel Smith and sharing of multi-disciplinary research on Africa made for a successful event.



By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (June, 3, 2011) – A display of masks and sculptures from the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum’s collection and a pair of drums in the lobby of the Dr. Kiran B. Patel Center for Global Solutions hinted that the day’s events were focused on Africa.


Soon a drummer and percussionist began playing in the midst of a crowd that greeted each other warmly and enjoyed a light breakfast. They signaled the beginning of the Global and Collaborative Inquiry Symposium sponsored by USF’s Institute on Black Life (IBL) and the USF Africa Initiatives Faculty Group (AIFG).


The second drum was an open invitation for a player, and Dr. Adewale Troutman from the USF College of Public Health spontaneously joined in with Don Johnson, a graduate student from the Department of Africana Studies to get things started.


The Thursday program opened with welcoming greetings from IBL Director Cheryl Rodriguez; Professor John Gathegi on behalf of AIFG; College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg; Associate Vice President for Global Academic Programs Roger Brindley; and Department of Africana Studies Chair Deborah Plant.  Rodriguez then introduced her IBL predecessor, College of Engineering Professor Geoffrey Okogbaa. Together they paid tribute to IBL founder Juel Shannon Smith, praising her vision and the work she put into the creation of the institute 25 years ago.


Smith in turn told the audience about the early days.


“The institute has come a long way from the trunk of my car,” she said, explaining how she got started on a shoe-string budget. She traveled all over campus and the Tampa Bay area reaching out to faculty and students as well as community, business and corporate leaders for input and support.


“It was after the 1970s and 1980s – the time when people were interested in changing conditions and helping with unmet needs in the communities around USF,” she said. “The institute’s mission was to serve as a bridge and conduct research and provide community service.  So that’s what we did.” 


Ten years after founding IBL, Smith initiated the “international arm” of IBL, the Center for Africa and the Diaspora, which led to vigorous fundraising to finance study and travel abroad for USF students and faculty. 


 Rodriguez spoke of being the beneficiary of one of those trips. Though not her first, it was one of her most memorable. Calling Smith “a miracle worker” Rodriguez said, “She found the support to send 12 of us to the second African American Summit in Gabon in the early 1990s and I had the chance to meet so many interesting people including the president of Gabon, El Hadj Omar Bongo.”


She added, “Dr. Smith is kind, loving and generous. …I’m in awe of her.”


Okogbaa praised Smith’s role as a mentor in his life and remarked that he spoke for many at USF over the years. He and Rodriguez presented Smith with a plaque commemorating her role as founder.


“It was a wonderful honor, one I will always treasure,” Smith said. “I didn’t do all of this alone. I had a lot of help.” She included thanks to her husband John L. Smith, former dean of the USF College of Fine Arts (now College of The Arts) as well as friend and major USF donor Carol Morsani who were both in attendance for the special tribute.


Following the acknowledgment of Smith’s contributions, attendees broke into concurrent sessions that featured multidisciplinary panels. In one room they looked at the “Effects of Global Financial and Economic Crisis,” “Intellectual Property Legislation in Kenya,” the “Most Vulnerable Nigerians,” “Sports for Social Change,” “Children of War” and “Transition of Urban Water Infrastructure.” In the other they talked about, “Integrated Watershed Management,” “CoPH Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa,” “Local Knowledge and Climate Change,” “Revisiting the Shoah” and “Urban Gardens in the Kingdom of the Sky.”


After lunch a final Roundtable on Collaborative Research headed by Kofi Marfo, professor of educational psychology and Musa Olaka, a librarian in USF’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center followed opening remarks from Vice Provost for Academic Program Development Linda Whiteford. She pointed out USF’s many connections to Africa – historic and cultural – highlighting recent visits by faculty and students both to and from USF and agreements between USF and African universities.


“I was impressed by the breadth, depth and significance of the research we’ve seen here today,” Whiteford said. “This is just the beginning of what we’ll see more of in the future and I’m looking forward to the next round of work we’ll’ be seeing in the months and years to come.”


Also present at the symposium were two special guests from the University of Ghana, Akosua Ampofo, associate professor at the Institute of African Studies and director of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy and Dzodzi Tsikata, associate director of the center and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research.


Rodriguez is working with the two scholars on a book that will look at women and gender in the African Diaspora which she sees as just the beginning of more collaborative efforts between the Institute on Black Life and scholars of and from Africa. 


“Now that the institute is part of USF World and located in the Patel Center, I’m finding we’re a true global community here, we’re part of creating the synergy Roger Brindley talked about earlier,” she said. “Everything we do at the Institute on Black Life is multilayered and multi-textural, much like Kente cloth – complex and beautiful – and very valuable to everyone. Dr. Smith established a great treasure here at USF. As Dean Eisenberg said this morning, ‘some of our best days are ahead.’ Today we honored the past, celebrated the present and now look ahead to a brilliant future.” 


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563